Plight of Yemeni inmates inspires advocate to leave partnership at prestigious legal firm and open his own human rights practice.
Guantanamo lawyer follows new muse
David Remes took a deep breath, flicked his blood-red tie over his left shoulder and started unbuckling his belt. By the time his trousers were around his ankles, he was sure he had got his message across.
The Washington DC lawyer stood in his white underwear in front of media in Sana'a this month, not to draw attention to himself, but to show the world the humiliation he says his clients went through as inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp run by the United States. His public act was done out of desperation and has attracted attention in the US and Yemen while helping change the course of his career.
Mr Remes, 58, is leaving as a partner at Covington & Burling, the firm with which he was doing pro bono work for 15 Yemenis held at the US prison in Cuba. Today is his last day before starting a law firm specialising in human rights. The trouser move by the high-profile member of the legal team challenging the captives' detention puzzled many, but Mr Remes was clear about why he did it. "I believed it would be a compelling way to draw attention within Yemen to the fear and humiliation our clients suffer daily at Guantanamo Bay," Mr Remes said in a telephone interview with The National.
"My intention was to dramatise the humiliation these men were suffering in a way that would maximise the impact on Yemenis and the Yemeni government." He said the idea for demonstration was not planned, but came to him as he was speaking. "It is regrettable that the focus is on the way I illustrated the humiliation rather than on the humiliation I illustrated. If I had to do it again, I probably wouldn't."
Mr Remes last visited Guantanamo Bay in June. He was escorted by members of the US army military police to meet his clients, who are from Sana'a, Taiz, Ibb and Aden. What they told him angered him. They live in windowless cells and are subjected to constant noise and light. Some are chained all day. Most days, detainees are taken to a small room by their captors and forced to lift their shirts and drop their pants before guards search them, including their private parts, he said.
"You can't imagine how humiliating this is unless you see it," Mr Remes said at the press conference before dropping his own trousers. The Harvard-educated lawyer said he and his team had struggled for several years to get the attention of the Yemeni government, with limited success. This time he might have succeeded. "The idea of US soldiers manhandling the bodies of deeply conservative Muslim men in the fashion that I illustrated must shock ordinary Yemenis and Yemeni officials.
"The concept that an American lawyer would go to such lengths that these men suffered really drove home the point that we were trying to make. I've been told that my illustration ? had effectively communicated the point within Yemen." With nearly 100 of its citizens in the US prison, Yemen has the largest number of detainees at Guantanamo, which is home to about 280 prisoners. Most of the Yemenis were picked up by US forces in Afghanistan, and while many may have supported the Taliban, most were not involved in politics, Mr Remes said.
"The men pose no threat or risk to the United States. The United States is making a great fuss about security on the assumption that these 100 men are all latent terrorists, and I think that assumption is simply false." The detainees are also caught up in a spat between their homeland and the US. While dozens of Saudis, Afghans and Europeans have been sent home, the chances of innocent Yemenis at Guantanamo Bay being released are being hampered by the actions of the two governments.
"The United States appears to be demanding too much and the Yemenis appear to be offering too little," Mr Remes said. The US wants Yemen to contribute more to the investigation into the bombing of the USS Cole in Oct 2000 at the port of Aden, and to get tough on al Qa'eda units operating in the country. "President [Ali Abdullah] Saleh has much bigger things on his mind than 100 men in Guantanamo. I believe he gets political mileage by standing up to the United States ? and declaring, 'we won't be dictated to'."
After four years of working on the case, Mr Remes is frustrated. "We're only talking about 100 men. How hard can it be? That's the question we ask ourselves and everyone we encounter." However, he is confident the men will one day return home to their families, and he sees his role as crucial to the success. "Ultimately it will have to be resolved at the diplomatic level, but the litigation is very important because it places a good deal of pressure on the United States government to rid itself of this problem."
While his role will continue, his job is changing. Today, Mr Remes will put the photos of his wife, Naomi, and two daughters into boxes along with his other belongings and leave the offices of Covington & Burling after 25 years at the firm. While speculation about his resignation only one week after the press conference in Yemen has been a hot topic in legal circles in Washington, Mr Remes said the move had been planned for several months. The New York-born lawyer plans to stay in Washington but will turn his back on his corporate career and start a non-profit human rights law firm.
"This was a genuine and sincere transformation in my priorities. Each time I came back from Guantanamo, each time I came back from Yemen, all I could think of was 'nothing else matters, nothing else is meaningful, nothing else is significant'. "These men are so unjustly treated, so cruelly treated, so unfairly treated, so lawlessly treated by my own government that everything else pales into comparison in terms of what I want to do with whatever gifts and talents I have. I am following a new muse."